An open, unfiltered internet could be the key to toppling autocrats
Look for news of the Russian war in Ukraine or women-led protests in Iran and you’ll see violence and bloodshed, as Russians attack civilians and Iranian police target protesters. To be sure, these images reflect the reality on the ground and we are right to increase our support for those fighting the regimes directly.
But in the information age, information itself is also a key weapon and should not be ignored in the fight against authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the long-term path of war in Ukraine goes through downtown Moscow and the streets of St. Petersburg just as the long-term path of the protests in Iran goes through downtown Tehran and the religious centers of Qom. The long-term battle is for the hearts and minds of the Russian and Iranian people, who have the ability to end the reigns of terror that President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have inflicted on their respective nations, people and neighbors.
In Ukraine, standing alone, military losses will likely not be enough to get Putin to surrender. On the contrary, the more he suffers at the hands of Western weapons, the more likely it is that Putin will resort to increasingly brutal tactics. As we’ve seen already, as losses have mounted, Putin has increasingly lashed out against civilian targets and waved the flag of nuclear first use. Moreover, as these losses increase further, the chances of Putin being toppled by an even more aggressive fanatic only increase, because he may be viewed as weak and unable to succeed by the power-hungry fanatics that have backed this invasion from the start.
Likewise, in Iran, as we’ve seen, the images of women standing up against their longstanding male oppressors and openly challenging the regime have been crucial in forcing the beginnings of change from within.
A key way to affect this dynamic is for allies to provide open and secure internet access to the Russian and Iranian people, giving them access to information without the prying eyes of their governments and without the content being filtered or their actions being tracked. Allowing citizens to access Western media and up-to-date, accurate news from the field can help the United States and our allies break the grasp of the Russian and Iranian internal propaganda machines.
With such access, Russians and Iranians would be able to see more clearly for themselves the violence being imposed on Ukrainians and Iranian women, learn the truth of their leaders’ mounting failures and potentially hear the voices of alternative leaders. Furthermore, open and secure internet access will help Russian and Iranian citizens to organize and mobilize by reducing the risk of being caught by the deep digital surveillance conducted by the Putin and Khameini regime.
In many ways, open and secure internet access is the modern equivalent of the broadcasting regimes that were so successful during the Cold War: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and many others. Today’s capabilities are even more powerful because they allow resistance movements to directly advocate and publish information and to recruit and mobilize the population. Online videos can provide training, WhatsApp can help mobilize, Google Maps can direct forces and protestors, and Twitter can serve up news and ideas, to name just a few.
Indeed, these aspects of information flow are exactly why authoritarian regimes regularly impose censorship and monitor activities on their country’s internet. Open access to information is the one weapon that scares authoritarians like Putin and Khameini the most.
Thankfully, the U.S. and our allies have the technology to change this today. From providing broadband internet access through small satellite hotspots and supplying access to strongly encrypted virtual private networks, allied governments can partner with private companies to help citizens in authoritarian countries bypass regime firewalls and connect directly and securely to the open internet. This tactic will be hard for authoritarian regimes to combat because seeking to locate and arrest those connected to those hotspots will likely backfire and only further alienate populations hungry for more information.
Funding the deployment of such hotspots in authoritarian nations, ensuring consistent and secure access and working with the private sector to develop the next generation of such access, including capabilities that are easier to disguise and harder to block, will also be key for the U.S. and our allies.
The only “good” ending to the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran will be when their future governments decide to put an end to the brutal actions against their own people and neighbors. To help those who seek to achieve these ends, a critical weapon will be one that can break the back of the Russian and Iranian propaganda machines: open and secure access to the internet for their citizens.
Ram Fish is the CEO of 19Labs and a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. Brian Gran is a professor of Sociology, Law, and Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Jamil N. Jaffer is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and the former chief counsel and senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.